Technologies are always being released that promise to change the way you live or work. But many never measure up. Fortunately, Apple's promotion of the new Thunderbolt interface possesses promise.
Just how will businesses benefit? There are several ways the serial data connection technology improves performance and even compatibility. For starters, because Thunderbolt blends PCI Express and DisplayPort technologies, it's backward-compatible with existing DisplayPort devices. Using simple adapters, USB and FireWire components can be connected via Thunderbolt, too.
Thunderbolt, which uses Apple's Mini DisplayPort connections, boasts excellent performance. The technology enables up to 10Gbps performance both upstream and downstream. That's fast, especially compared to comparatively pedestrian 480Mbps performance from USB 2.0 devices. Do the math: it's up to 20 times faster.
It's also easier to power and connect multiple devices using Thunderbolt. The connector provides 10 watts of power to peripherals and supports daisy-chaining a half-dozen devices. The standard also supports hot plug connections.
Because Macs are often used in demanding environments, the improved throughput makes a significant difference. Since many devices often need to be connected off the same port, too, the ability to daisy chain and power multiple high-performance peripherals isn't compromised, either. Businesses that must access large RAID arrays or transfer large amounts of data quickly-such as occurs regularly when completing backups, capturing or transferring video, developing websites, producing video presentations, managing graphics projects, and completing engineering tasks — will find Thunderbolt a welcome innovation.
The benefits become clear quickly. High-performance RAID arrays, high bit-rate video capture equipment, Fibre Channel connections, and even gigabit NICs and displays can be connected using Thunderbolt.
Numerous devices are now available. Apple has already released numerous computers capable of leveraging the new standard. MacBook Pros introduced in February 2011 included Thunderbolt, as so do MacBook Airs, iMacs and Mac minis now. Other commercial products providing Thunderbolt support include Apple's Thunderbolt Display (which includes a Thunderbolt port integrated within the display); Promise, LaCie and Sonnet Fusion storage devices; Blackmagic and Matrox video equipment; and Promise and Sonnet FireWire and Gigabit adapters.
Best of all, costs aren't outrageous. When buying a new iMac, for example, adding a two-meter Thunderbolt cable increases the price just $49. A Thunderbolt-enabled Pegasus R6 RAID system boasting 6TB of storage comes in at under $1,500, far less than small businesses might pay for a 6TB SAN. Keep in mind the Promise Pegasus array connected via Thunderbolt delivers 800Mbps performance, too, using traditional 7200RPM disks. That's quite reasonable, especially for the typical small businesses that run Macs.
The Apple Thunderbolt 27" Display, meanwhile, is just $999. That's the same price as Apple's old LED Cinema Display of the same size.
Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president of Eckel Media Corp., a communications company specializing in public relations and technical authoring projects.